February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
A civilian adventurer gave us the best artist’s record of America in Vietnam.
William Linzee Prescott already knew a lot about war when he went to Vietnam. Born in 1917 and the descendant of the Colonel Prescott who told his men to hold their fire until they saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes on Bunker Hill, he studied art at Chouinard in Los Angeles, joined the Army at the outbreak of World War II, and jumped into Normandy with the 82d Airborne. Captured and held for ten months before he escaped, Prescott documented his POW days in brisk sketches and the Normandy invasion with a mural at West Point. In 1967 he was sent to Vietnam as the first civilian painter with the Army Combat Artist Program. At the time of his death in 1981, he was planning a book of his Vietnam drawings; but work had not gone far, and Morley Safer, a correspondent who also put in time in Vietnam and who recently wrote a fine book about it, has expanded on the hastily penciled identifications the artist left behind on his watercolors. Safer believes that Prescott’s vibrant paintings show that war with an urgency and an intimacy that the camera often misses.
The artist at war is a unique character. Unlike the correspondent, he has no artificial deadline imposed by editors—only the much harsher deadline of movement to be captured, complicated by that dreadful monster that people politely call the muse. Unlike war photographers, he has no technical help, no motor drive to catch images almost faster than they occur; his equipment has not changed much since early man. And yet the artist in war, like the artist anywhere, is forever on the edge of something new. What he sees is only part of it; the agility of hand is only part of it. The main thing is what the muse, the monster in his head, makes happen. When it doesn’t happen, it is just so much paint on paper. These next few pages are anything but that.
I did not know Linzee Prescott. I wish I had. If a man’s paintings are an exposure of character, then Prescott would clearly be the kind of man any correspondent would want to share a few glasses with. For the truth of war is that as tragic as the whole awful panorama may be, it is also very funny. And Vietnam was more absurd than most, with its combination of imperial arrogance, boyish innocence, its whoring and dying in the span of a day, and all without any purpose anyone could rationally explain. Prescott captures it all in a few bold strokes.
Vietnam Rhapsody is a rush of images that has haunted me since the day I first saw Prescott’s portfolio: the garish and sacred, the profane and the deadly. I can smell the rot and scratch the imaginary bug bites, hear the din of Saigon traffic drowned out by the whap-whap of the Hueys. To anyone who was there, Vietnam Rhapsody is an old postcard to oneself, rediscovered in the attic of memory.
The Saigon River in Asia’s two golden hours—just after dawn and just before sunset—offered moments of serenity. The place seemed to move back in time and became again a sleepy backwater, sending out rice, sisal, rubber, and some opium and bringing in bicycle parts and questionable French plumbing. The daydream ended upriver. Saigon Harbor was a hustler’s paradise when Prescott painted this view in 1967, at the height of our build-up. People may forget how rich so many Americans and Vietnamese became; the more troubled the place was, the more money there was, for black marketeers, import-export businesses, shipowners, brokers, and dopers. Much of it was made in the port of Saigon. Out of curiosity, back in the mid-sixties, I inquired in the black market if it was possible to buy a tank. The dealer, who traded mainly in American Army fatigues, said, “No problem, maybe take one week. If you want APC (armored personnel carrier), I get for you right now.”
When America goes to war, much more than “beans and bullets” are expended. This port was the landing place for billions of cans of beer, hair spray, and vials of antibiotics to cure both the infections of the battlefield and the inevitable results of more peaceful encounters in the streets of Saigon. The stevedores—men and women—were a tough bunch of rascals who worked to their own rules and at their own speed. Like almost every level of Vietnamese society, they included probably hundreds of Vietcong agents. Saigon Harbor was as much a resupply point for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese as it was for the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and its American allies. Barges of rice imported under a U.S. AID program would routinely be sent upriver under the command of Vietnamese naval officers who would hand it over to the Vietcong in exchange for drugs or cash. The drugs would be distributed through a Saigon network or be exported to Hong Kong. The cash would find its way to Switzerland.
Prescott’s sketch of the port may fairly be described as reportage. The painting of the woman driving a fork lift, which he calls Abstraction, is one of those lovely caught moments when the rusty plate of a tramp steamer seems to frame her with some barbarian’s hieroglyph.
I first went to Vietnam in 1965. I lived in the Caravelle Hotel at the corner of Le Loi Boulevard and Tu Do Street. Tu Do, in the French colonial years, was the Rue Catinat, a street of small, smart boutiques, European restaurants, a few shops dealing in tortoiseshell, and a sprinkle of small bars. By the middle of 1965 the boutiques had given way to kiosk-size bars featuring teen-age bar girls and deafening sound systems. The change in Tu Do simply reflected the change in the war. By early 1965 machismo was in the air. Americans were pouring into the country by the division. It was no longer a war of coaching on the sidelines. This was the real thing, and Vietnamese entrepreneurs were as quick as any to latch on to the profitable business of supplying non-GI necessities for young America. For many a young warrior Tu Do Street was a first encounter with manhood, or, anyway, womanhood. Girls would beckon from barroom doorways, shout out in Pidgin English, “Hey you, GI, I love you too much … you buy for me … hey, GI, you numbah one … you no go next door … next door numbah ten.”
The street smelled of damp and cheap perfume and regurgitated beer. Teams of MPs patrolled along with their Vietnamese counterparts. Beefy construction workers, pistols jammed into their belts, strolled hand in hand with tiny Vietnamese women. The days were hot, always. In the monsoon season the rain would come down in sheets, beginning at 5:00 P.M. sharp and lasting for forty minutes or so.
The evenings on Tu Do were a garish son et lumière, the Beatles and Motown belting out of the cheaper bars. Filipino electronic combos, their efforts raised a few notches by PX-liberated amplifiers, played in the more expensive bars. Inside, a young Vietnamese woman made a valiant attempt to bump and grind. It was a sad, pitiful amusement—like a little girl with Mother’s makeup; only she was naked. Even the drunken, sweaty men who paid good money for this looked slightly embarrassed.
Outside, misspelled neon signs were reflected over and over in the wet pavement. Saigon cowboys, young rich Vietnamese draft dodgers, were scoping out the action on their Italian mopeds. If there was a war going on somewhere, surely it was not here. Some not-too-distant crump was a reminder of the other reality; a glance from a third-floor window brought the sight of flares dropping over Gia Dinh or some other suburb under attack. It was a vaudeville version of The Inferno. Prescott’s drawings are the set designs.
Dawn at Tan Son Nhut. Old C-123 transports, light shining from their open bellies, wait for a troop of ARVN soldiers. Reluctant conscripts, badly fed, badly led, and hungry, go off to fight a battle that will not be reported. After all, this is an American show. The Vietnamese are the road company. Hundreds of thousands will die in anonymous slaughters.
For civilians there was no escape. The Vietcong practiced the Maoist doctrine of revolution. Civilians were the sea through which swam the fish of uprising. Civilians simply got in the way. Bombers and body counters did not discriminate. Prescott a veteran of the Second World War, knew all about that part of war. He painted Why Are They Mad at Us? with watercolors, but the caption is written in acid. The question is as old as warfare. There is no answer, only the bleating of generals about the care taken to preserve life and win hearts and minds. Slogans and blather, the twin engines of war.
I love Movies in the Boonies. There were movies in the boonies, set up on makeshift screens, just the way Prescott depicts this one. It was something like watching silent talkies, for you caught only every third or fourth sentence. Outgoing artillery made the plot hard to follow, and occasionally incoming would end the screening completely. I saw The Pink Panther at a Special Forces camp in Ben Cat in 1965, and at a critical point, when Inspector Clouseau is firing his gun, the Vietcong began a mortar attack. It wasn’t until we heard shrapnel hitting the tin roof that we realized show time was over.
Prescott invents a movie in this painting. It stars those two booze-hardened veterans of the USO campaigns, John Wayne and Martha Raye, and the dialogue reflects the grunt’s scorn for Hollywood heroics.
WAYNE: “Martha, I gotta step out for a minute.”
RAYE: “Goodie, I’ll get my grenade launcher and go along with you.”
WAYNE: “No, you stay here. I’m just gonna blow up a few bridges and oh yes capture General Giap.”
RAYE: “But lover boy, you’ll need help.”
WAYNE: “Aw hell, no, I’d rather do it myself. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
East Meets West, is one of those moments that look as if they were created out of Prescott’s imagination. In fact, such wonderful visual contradictions were around every corner in Vietnam. I wish he had omitted the caption and just left it with the bold-faced “Armor.” The monks seem to be getting a greater sense of security from their saffron robes than the GIs are getting from the armor plate on their M-60 tank.
The two sketches of GIs, Angry and How Did I Get into This? are reminiscent of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe characters of the Second World War. The Eternal Grunt, the kid who answers his country’s call, fights, bleeds, dies or survives, and beyond some quiet grousing never complains. Every soldier in every war must have asked, “How did I get into this?” Generally speaking there were answers. Perhaps not wholly satisfying, but at the least a man could rest his head at night and drift off feeling some small moral or philosophical justification for the filth and the peril around him. In Vietnam there was no answer, and the genuine tragedy is that so many are still asking the question, still facing the invisible peril.
In all my time in Vietnam I did not see a figure like the woman soldier depicted by Prescott. I would have thought most Vietnamese women would have been too modest to sport themselves in quite the way she does. But forget Vietnam. This could be one of Manet’s studies for Olympia as modeled by Madonna.
Vietnam was the first helicopter war. They were everything; ambulances, firing platforms, hearses, even taxicabs. Two of three on these pages are Hueys; the third is an observation chopper, and Prescott’s notes indicate the pilot checking on two suspected Vietcong cyclists at dusk.
From this altitude there was no way of knowing friend from foe. In fact, on the ground there was no way of knowing friend from foe. Another of the absurdities of America’s Vietnam experience. And yet another absurdity: the vacation from war. Prescott calls this Going Home, but in his notes he explains that the young captain is simply getting ready for R & R, the one-week break from the war offered to every American. R & R meant rest and recuperation. The grunts called it rape and run.
Prescott tells us that this young captain is a little more domestically inclined. He’s arranged to meet his wife in Tokyo, and he’s got a load of stuff for her to take back home—including, if you look carefully, the requisite ceramic elephant that every soldier brought back from Vietnam. It was meant to bring luck.
This last painting depicts the silliness of the whole adventure, with something approaching affection. That extraordinary technology we brought to the jungles of Southeast Asia, the well-oiled firepower, the superbly trained aircraft commander, nervously checking over his shoulder to see his cargo hadn’t shifted. The door gunner on full alert, flak jacket in place, ready to fire. All to give a fella a week with his wife and air conditioning. All for a lousy ceramic elephant.